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Customer Spotlight: National Pie Day with Sand Hill Berries

To celebrate National Pie Day on January 23, we recently interviewed Susan Lynn of Sand Hill Berries, a small fruits farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. In addition to the berries and fruits grown there, Sand Hill Berries is also known for their baked goods and especially their delicious pies. In the interview Susan shared about their operation and all about their homemade pies. Listen to the full podcast episode with Susan here.

First, could you tell our listeners about Sand Hill Berries? 
Sand Hill Berries has been in business for over 30 years. We first planted our berries in 1986. Initially we were a partnership between my sister and myself, and my brother-in-law and my husband. We planted about 26 acres of berries and did all wholesale for several years.

We first got involved in berries because Ogilvy Floral, which grew geraniums around the world, started a project where they were grew what's called tissue-cultured raspberries. They're raspberries that are grown from germplasm in a test tube so they are completely disease-free, including virus-free. That's very important for raspberries because a plant virus causes an early demise of a raspberry plant, and it will cause significant declines in the yield. 

So when berries became able to be developed completely clean, the raspberry industry changed. We planted berries in '87, although we had a terrible drought in '87. We replanted in '88, and we harvested in '88 in spite of another drought. We harvested our first black raspberries in '87, and so on. We just kept realizing greater and greater yields until the third year, and then we leveled off. And we continued with many years of excellent harvest.

We initially had the idea that we would do all wholesale. Part of the reasoning for this was that we felt that we could not really have the local population to have a retail operation. 

However, the Pittsburgh Press, wrote an article about our operation. We soon found out that people were very interested in red raspberries and black raspberries and drove from Pittsburgh to our location to purchase them. 

That was a turning point in our business’s history. From then on, in addition to the wholesale business, a we had a business of doing festivals, including the Westmoreland County Arts and Heritage Festival, Fort Ligonier Day and Mount Pleasant Glass Festival. We also did rib cook-off festivals, where we actually used our excess berries to make raspberry toppings, and we serve that over top of homemade cheesecake, ice cream sundaes and raspberry shortcake. So, that was the basis of our business.

Then, the farm market industry, began and farm markets just burgeoned. As farm markets grew, we became less interested in wholesale. However, we still had excess berries that we were not able to sell even though we might be going to seven to nine farm markets a week. 

So we established a winery to take care of our excess fruits. Initially we were only interested in becoming a fruit winery, but now we make both traditional wines and fruit wines. Our excess fruit that could not be sold as retail or wholesale went to the winery. 

One thing that shocked us whenever we first got involved in raspberries was that through hand picking, there are still many berries that are not be saleable at a supermarket level or even a retail level because they were missed from the picking the day before. We pick every berry, every row, every day. There are many berries that are still perfectly good to eat, but not saleable from the standpoint of appearance -  maybe they are a little too soft, too juicy or got picked too soon. That’s when we got involved in value-added processing.

We started making jam, lower sugar jams, jams without seeds and baking pies for our farm market sales. That extended our business to cover all of our bases. 

What we have dropped, is we have worked to have a more spring to late fall approach to everything we grow. We're working to have no time of the year where we do not have something fresh in the small fruits line that is not grown here. 

Every small fruit that we sell here was grown here. That’s been a business principle that we’ve adhered to. We do not augment our sales with outside purchases. 

Let's talk more about the delicious pies that you make at Sand Hill Berries. Tell us about your pie operation.
We started making pies when we first started festivals and went to the Allegheny County rib cook-off where we made sundaes, shortcakes and cheesecakes. The next year, we applied to have a booth at Allegheny County rib cook-off and we thought, won't it be nice to have some raspberry and blackberry pie?

We knew someone who was a neighbor of my parents who owned a bakery in a neighboring town. His bakery was sort of hobby/retirement project. 

This man shared his pie recipe with us, and he had us up to his house and taught us everything he knew about pie dough. Then he came down here and showed us how to bake pies. We had one oven at the time. He gave us his pie dough recipe, which is not a small batch recipe, but it's not large in the normal sense of large. Our pie dough recipe makes eight pounds for any one batch, and we never make more than that.

That’s how we got started in our crust. His crust was very famous locally, everybody loves his pie crust. Most people do like our pie crust, there are some people who claim that their pie crust is better, and I don't doubt it because eight pounds is a lot of pie crust to make at one time. So, we do that because any less amount, we would not be able to make the number of pies that we do. Plus, we have very few people who are critical of our pie crust, so that's a good thing. It really attests to that man's recipe, and that's our crust.

For making pies, we have a division of labor here. Someone measures the dough, another person puts the Crisco in and mixes the dough, another person makes the pie filling, another person does the rolling. Then the next step is the filling of the pie, actually putting the filling into the pie and topping the pie with the top crust and then baking the pies. So, that's all handled in an assembly line fashion, not all at the same time. 

One day we may make the dough, the next day we may roll the dough, but basically everything that we do here is still done by hand, and we visually inspect everything. Our pie rolling takes place either by hand or with the use of a hand rolling machine so we can shape the pie dough and actually crank the dough through and roll it that way, instead of using a rolling pin. Although we still do use a rolling pin very often. 

We make our filling here, and that's something that's kind of unusual. We take the berries, raspberries and blackberries, which have a pH that's too high to thicken with flour. We thicken the pies with tapioca and cornstarch. We use old-fashioned granulated tapioca, and cook it. We cook all of our fillings completely to done stage so that they're clear and ready to go in the pie. That way we know that when we put the crust on, all we have to really do is bake that crust and the pie will be finished. We don’t have to worry about boiling the filling inside the pie in order to get a clear, beautiful filling. 

We use many more than the single oven that we had back in 1990, and we use them all the time. Many times of the year, during festivals and Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, we have to carefully plan the use of our ovens. Sometimes we have pies going late into the night and early in the morning. 

I'm sure part of the reason why your pies are so delicious is because of the farm-grown berries used to make them. What have you found to be the keys to success to growing top quality berries?
Well, there's been a lot of changes in the berry growing industry over the past 30 years. When we first started, there were things as simple as putting berries on trellis because the new virus-free raspberries were so much more vigorous than anything that had been grown before. 

The new phase of growing includes growing is in high tunnels, which is a semi-permanent greenhouse. 

Even progressing beyond that, there's a berry growing industry of long canes, which is growing canes one year, storing them in a near-freezing cooler and saving them until they can be set outside in pots and ripened for the appropriate time when you need the berries to be harvested. This has been done in Europe for many years, and it's beginning to be done in this country.

The other thing that's happening in some places in the world, they're actually growing acres and acres of raspberries under fully-retractable covers. That will never happen on our here as it is very money-intensive. However, it is worth it in some areas of the globe where they're concentrating on high volume agriculture. Here, we're not concentrating on high volume, we're concentrating on our low carbon footprint.

The most important thing when growing berries is sun and water. Berries need water. If it's not raining, they need to be irrigated. If it's raining too much, they're going to become moldy in the field if you're not accurately and actively picking them every single day. 

That is another place where high tunnels come in. A lot of people in education and Extension who are growing berries say they would only plant raspberries in a high tunnel. In a high tunnel, you're essentially irrigating all the time, but you have very little fungus on the berries because they don't come in contact with rain. 

Also important is pruning, which needs to be done correctly, and nutrition. Some varieties require a lot of extra nutrition, some not so much. The time of year for the nutrition is actually very important too.

We pick our berries every single day. Mother Nature makes it easy to know when to pick raspberries. When they're ready, they come off the vine. 

It’s not so easy with blackberries because the receptacle stays inside the berry. In other words, there's not a hole in the blackberry. Sometimes the blackberry will be ripe on the outside facing the sun, but red on the inside and too tart. 

Black raspberries are the same as red raspberries. When they are ready, they come off their receptacle and when you pick the berry off, that part stays on the bush.

That's the difference between picking blackberries, black raspberries and red raspberries.

Could you tell our listeners what kind of pie you will be enjoying on National Pie Day, as well as anything else that you'd like to share with our listeners here today.
We will be putting National Pie Day out on social media and encouraging people to come to the store and get whatever kind of pie they like.  

Raspberry's our bestseller. Is it the best pie? My father always liked blackberry, and we always called that the pie-eaters pie. 

This past summer we made a pie that was half raspberry and half blackberry, so people who were trying to decide wouldn't have to choose. And we called that pie Rhythm and Blues because we called it R and B for a long time. We have that pie available so you can order it. 

We don't grow our own peaches, but we made a pie at Easter for many years called raspberry peach, and we began making it on a regular basis in 2020.

For your listeners who have been here, those are two pies that they might not have heard of before that they might want to try. 

Also, we peel apples almost daily, and we make both Dutch apple pies and double-crust apple pies, and we only use our own apples. They’re considered a seasonal pie, but I would have to say that next to raspberry, apple pies of either variety are probably the most popular. 

We'll be expecting to make a lot of raspberry and a lot of apple pies.


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